Battle of Guilford Court House
The Battle of Guilford Court House, a major battle of the American Revolutionary War, occurred on March 15, 1781 at Guilford Court House (now Greensboro), North Carolina. It was fought between the American army of Major General Nathanael Greene and the British army of Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis. The largest single military action of the war in the southern theater, it was technically a victory for the British as they held the field; however, the battle would prove to be a strategic defeat, as the heavy casualties sustained undermined British control of the Carolinas. In the aftermath of Guilford Court House, while Greene marched into South Carolina to contest the British presence in that state, Cornwallis would move north into Virginia and eventually be penned down and forced to surrender at Yorktown later that year. In that respect, Guilford Court House was the epitome of a "Pyrrhic victory" for the British, and a critical step toward the liberation of the American South.
Following his triumph at the Battle of Camden in August 1780, Charles Cornwallis had established firm control over South Carolina and Georgia, and was in a position to expand into North Carolina and possibly Virginia in the near future, as the defeated American army, which had fallen back on Charlotte, was badly outnumbered and disorganized. His advance was delayed, however, first by the defeat and destruction of a detachment under Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of King's Mountain in October, then by the Americans' resumption of the offensive after Greene took command of the American army in December. Despite the numerical odds, Greene had divided his army in two in order to harass Cornwallis' forces in South Carolina, a tactic that proved highly successful with the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, in which part of his army, under Daniel Morgan, wiped out a brigade under Banastre Tarleton.
In the aftermath of Cowpens, Greene rejoined Morgan, who suggested a retreat westward into the Appalachian Mountains, reasoning that the rugged terrain would make pursuit by the British impossible. However, Greene by now had learned that Cornwallis had in turn reacted to the news of Cowpens by destroying his baggage train and heavy equipment and cutting loose from his base at Winnsboro, South Carolina, intending to match the mobility of his less-encumbered foe. Greene therefore decided upon a march north, not west, his goal the Dan River on the Virginia-North Carolina border. His reasoning was that by "retreating" just slowly enough to convince the British to continue their pursuit, he would wear them down and draw them far away from their supply base; Cornwallis would be left isolated and vulnerable, and Greene, drawing supplies and reinforcements from Virginia, could engage him on a more favorable basis.
The "Race to the Dan," which lasted from January 28 to February 13, saw a forced march by both armies, punctuated by frequent skirmishing, northward across the North Carolina Piedmont, with both the British and Americans struggling to cross major rivers including the Catawba, Yadkin, Deep, and Dan, usually in frigid weather. Thanks in part to a further division of his forces to confuse Cornwallis about his actual line of march, Greene succeeded in getting all of his troops across the Dan by February 13; this was a significant enough barrier that the British attempted no further pursuit. Far from his supply base and facing continual harassment by irregular forces, Cornwallis fell back on Hillsborough, where he foraged for supplies and sought to recruit North Carolina Tories. Loyalists were discouraged from joining in large numbers, though, due to the run-down state of Cornwallis' army and to "Pyle's massacre," a battle on the Haw River in late February, in which a Loyalist militia unit was largely destroyed. Reinforcements of militia and Continentals from Virginia and Maryland, meanwhile, swelled the size of Greene's army to about 4,500, compared to only about 2,000 under Cornwallis, and in late February the Americans re-crossed the Dan, maneuvering for the next two weeks until Greene finally took position at Guilford Court House on March 14.
Having learned of Greene's whereabouts, Cornwallis immediately marched to confront the Americans at Guilford, arriving by midday of the 15th. His infantry was deployed into two "wings," the right wing under Major General Alexander Leslie, the left wing under Lieutenant Colonel James Webster, together with a reserve under Brigadier General Charles O'Hara and the cavalry under Tarleton.
Greene's army was drawn up immediately southwest of the court house, along the main road that led to it. Though Morgan had had to leave the army in February due to ill health, he had advised Greene on the basis of what he had done at Cowpens, and much like in that battle, Greene had deployed his troops in three main lines: one of North Carolina militia, supported by sharpshooters and cavalry units under William Washington and "Light-Horse Harry" Lee; a second of Virginia militia, also backed by riflemen; and a third of Virginia and Maryland Continentals and artillery. Also like Morgan at Cowpens, Greene had ordered the militia to fire two volleys and then fall back, making a virtue of their shakiness in battle.
After surveying the American position, Cornwallis began his advance at 1:30 p.m., with Leslie and Webster on either side of the road leading to Guilford. Webster was slightly in advance, and was the first to make contact with the North Carolina militia west of the road. As instructed, the militia fired two volleys with a level of accuracy that surprised many in the British ranks; Webster was forced to order a bayonet charge to dislodge them. Both Webster and Leslie (now reinforced by O'Hara) closed on the second line of Virginia militia, though continuing to take oblique fire from Washington's and Lee's detachments on either flank. Webster attacked the militia's right flank under Brigadier General Edward Stevens, pushing it back and pressing on to attack the line of Continentals before the rest of the militia had been driven off; this left the British van exposed, and the Continentals responded with a musket volley and a bayonet charge of their own that drove Webster back.
Despite having already sustained heavy casualties, Cornwallis then re-formed his whole line (Leslie and O'Hara having in the meantime pushed back the remaining Virginia militia) and launched another attack on the Continentals. A short period of close combat ensued, during which neither side could make much progress; fearing his line would break, Cornwallis ordered his artillery to fire Grapeshot into the melee, despite the fact that it would inflict casualties on his own troops as well as the Americans. Though the British did indeed suffer a number of casualties from this friendly fire, it did succeed in causing Greene to withdraw his line.
Had Greene known the desperate situation of Cornwallis and his army, he might have continued the battle. However, most of his militia had already departed the field, and while most of his Continentals still held firm, he was unwilling to risk the survival of the South's only field army, and therefore ordered a retreat at about 3:30 p.m.
Although Cornwallis could technically claim victory at Guilford, since his army was in possession of the field at the battle's conclusion, it was far costlier than he could afford. The British casualty count was 93 killed, 413 wounded, 26 captured or missing. Losses had been equally heavy among the senior leadership; O'Hara had been wounded, Lieutenant Colonel James Stuart of the 2nd Guards Battalion had been killed, and Webster was mortally wounded. This was in contrast to Greene's much lighter casualties of 79 killed and 185 wounded (not including 1,046 "missing," mostly militia who had returned home after the battle). Echoing the words of Plutarch on the general Pyrrhus, the British Whig leader and war critic Charles James Fox said upon hearing reports of the battle, "Another such victory would ruin the British Army!"
By contrast, Guilford Court House was seen in retrospect as an example of the ultimately successful campaign waged by Greene; though he lost the battle, he could claim a strategic victory by severely weakening the overall British position in the South. In a later letter, he described his campaign in this way: "We fight, get beat, rise and fight again."
Still at a severe numerical disadvantage, and unable to obtain any supplies in the area, Cornwallis saw no option but to fall back on Wilmington, the closest supply base at this point. On March 17, he abandoned Guilford and marched to Wilmington.
Greene, meanwhile, turned south, intending to strike the British garrison at Camden, South Carolina: a move that opened his campaign to re-establish American control of the South, in which he had largely succeeded by year's end. Since his own force was down to fewer than 1,500 men, Cornwallis, rather than contest Greene directly, decided to invade Virginia. As he later argued, "a serious attempt upon Virginia would be the most solid plan, because successful operations might not only be attended with important consequences there, but would tend to the security of South Carolina and ultimately the submission of North Carolina." Cornwallis' decision would lead to his defeat and surrender at Yorktown in October, effectively ending the Revolutionary War.
Much of the battle site has been incorporated into the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, within the modern city of Greensboro. Annual reenactments of the battle are held in the park, on or near March 15. In 2016, a Crown Forces Monument was erected to honor the officers and men of Cornwallis' army.